Saturday, September 10, 2011

How I Survived Hurricane Irene

Quite a few well-meaning people have written to ask me how I survived the recent hurricane. Some have even suggested that I should give up living aboard and flee to higher ground.

We spent the entire event at the dock, bobbing up and down slightly and leaning over a bit in the wind gusts. By the time she hit Boston Harbor, Irene was downgraded to a tropical storm, with the eye well to the west of us. Still, we got buckets of rain and several hours of gale winds.

The worst of it was the preparation. I had to clear lots of things off the docks and the deck, rig additional dock lines, lace up the sail cover so it wouldn't flog in the wind, take down the awning, secure the dink so that it wouldn't get bashed around, tie down various items on deck so that they wouldn't blow away, fill the water tanks for additional ballast and in case we lost shore water, and so forth. That seemed like a lot of work.

During the hurricane itself we stayed on board, where it was warm and dry. We rocked a bit, and we spent a few hours leaning at about a 15º angle in the stiff breeze. My wife and the cat pretty much slept through the entire event. I would venture out periodically, mill around on the docks with the neighbors, adjust a few dock lines, and go back inside.

A few worst case scenarios were being contemplated, without much conviction, because several people have seen much worse. In one scenario the docks themselves start breaking up and boats start bashing into each other. As it turned out, just one dock cleat pulled out and some boards popped out of the finger piers from the twisting. Another potential problem would be if wind gusts got so stiff that sailboat masts would get tangled up in each others' rigging, possibly leading to a few dismastings. They didn't even get close. The ultimate nightmare scenario involved a storm surge so huge that the entire structure would float off the pilings and crash into the seawall. We were well short of that, in spite of a couple of extra high tides due to the full moon that coincided with the storm surge. We never even lost shore electricity, shore water or internet access, but with a wind generator, 1000 liters of water and plenty of books this wouldn't have affected us too much either.

During the worst of it

It seems like our "house" was designed to take it better than your average house. In a hurricane, there is a high risk of flooding, so it is helpful if your house can float. Also, there is a high risk of very high winds, so the house should be streamlined in shape and able to withstand hurricane force winds, even while floating. The combination of water and wind is known to cause waves, so it is helpful if the house can take the ocean swell and the odd breaking wave without capsizing or swamping. There is a good chance of power cuts and water main and gas line breaks, so the house should have its own internal electricity generation system, and its own supplies of water and propane. Lastly, a hurricane might make a certain area uninhabitable for a period of time, prompting you to want to move, but hurricanes also tend to wash away roads and bridges, so it would be better if your house could make its escape via the waterways. There might also be fuel supply disruptions, so it's better if your house can move without the use of fossil fuels by, say, hoisting a sail or two. In short, if you want to survive a hurricane, you want to be on a sailboat.

Now, granted, you could also be perfectly safe in a house that's built to withstand a hurricane, in an area that's full of such houses. But where is that? Most people I know can't afford the house they are living in now, never mind making it hurricane-proof.

Aside from hurricanes, there are forest fires, tsunamis and earthquakes. Forest fires aren't much of a problem out on the water. Tsunamis are uniquely survivable aboard a boat, given a bit of warning; when you see the water going out, head for deep water. Then, once it's all over, come back to survey the damage. During the recent East Coast earthquake, which damaged the National Cathedral in Washington, everyone in Boston felt it. My wife didn't; she was on the boat at the time.

It was a wet and windy weekend, and I didn't get a lot done. But compared to the scenes of devastation we see among the East Coast communities from Hatteras all the way up the coast and inland through Western Massachusetts to Vermont, for those of us living afloat in the harbor Hurricane Irene was pretty much a non-event.


Doyu Shonin said...

I thought maybe it was the prayer flags. ^_^

VJP said...

I'm glad that you were safe and well. I was on Cape Cod during and after Hurricane Bob [1991], and I remember boats littering the land; there wasn't much storm surge or tide with that one either.

Silenus said...

I was wondering, how do you store books on a boat? Does a regular (perhaps small) bookcase work, or would they fall off the shelves?

Dmitry Orlov said...

Bookshelves work ok, although it's important for them to have fids that prevent books from falling out of them when heeled. Also, every bookshelf has to be fully packed (generally not a problem) in order to avoid a lot of chafe. Same issue with hanging closets: clothes wear out a lot faster if they are constantly rubbing against other clothes. In general, the biggest problem for books is condensation and mold, and the solution is insulating the cabin (which I've done). We lost a few old books to mold (which especially likes leather covers, it turns out) but that was before I went on an insulating rampage. Now it's just a matter of deciding what to get rid of and what to keep.

Shadowfax said...

I must admit I get a smug feeling when I see all the lights go out on shore.
I just switch from electric heat to diesel,or maybe use the wood stove,all snug as a bug while those on land sit in the cold and dark!

russell1200 said...

LOL- That is exactly what people sound like when they have lived through the edge of a hurricane. I don't know anyone who has had the eye of a 3+ hurricane or the right hand side (North in the Atlantic) of the eye talk that way.

They will shake well built houses apart, and spawn mini-tornadoes all over the place. There is a matter of luck involved regardless of where you are.

The obvious advantage to being on land is that you are less likely to drown.

One of the more damaging events for the U.S. Navy in WW2 was not a battle but a Pacific Ocean Hurricane (Typhon Cobra). Three U.S. destroyers were sunk with over 700 lost.

People on the Gulf Coast had their own worst case Hurricane scenarios: it used to be Camille.

izzit said...

Had the same experience out west - houseboat owners gawked at my bobbing boat, but when a real storm hit with 50+ gusts, the boat just tilted & rode the waves. Meanwhile houseboats had dining tables (?! yeah) jumping up & down by 6-10 feet). Boats are made for water.

For one thing, real sailors prepare... Check out these two videos of different hurricanes at the same marina.

When the first hurricane hit, the marina & the boat owners hat not prepared. Boats weren't tied up well, nautical junk flew everywhere, deck chairs crunched like a blender. Lack of planning makes for great storm footage:

But for the next hurricane, the marina made sure the boats were cross-tied with adequate line, all decks were cleared (and probably some unseaworthy boats had been removed). The second hurricane was approximately equal in force - but this time the footage was uneventful:

Not saying boats are invincible - but I'd rather not be in a beach house, that's for sure!